Bodily symmetry: origins and lifecourse associations with cognition, personality, and status
Hope, David John
Symmetry – measured as the size asymmetry of a group of symmetrical body traits such as ear height or elbow circumference – has often been used as an index of the capacity to develop normally despite stress and correlates with a wide range of outcomes including intelligence, health and aspects of behaviour. However, theoretical debate continues over the underlying causes of these associations and outstanding methodological issues – such as the reliance on small sample sizes of college age students – makes the robustness of the findings uncertain. The present work advances the existing empirical literature in six separate domains. It also improves upon past methodology by using novel methods of digital measurement of asymmetry as well as for the first time digitally measuring endogenous asymmetry as indexed by the bones and linking bone asymmetry to intelligence. The research was conducted on four samples. Numbers given are for participants who provided asymmetry measures. Firstly, a sample of elderly participants from the Lothian Birth Cohort 1921 (LBC1921, n = 216) tested around ages 11, 79, 83, and 87. Secondly, the Science Festival Sample (SFS), a group of children recruited at a public science event aged between 4 and 15 (n = 856). Thirdly, a group of Orkney residents aged 18 to 86 (the ORCADES, n = 1200). Fourthly the Berlin Sample (BS), a group of Berlin residents (n = 207) between 20 and 30 years old. In the LBC 1921, men with poorer socioeconomic status in childhood had higher facial asymmetry in old age (β = -.25, p = .03). While investigating issues related to asymmetry in the same sample it was found that relatively more severe digit curvature – a minor physical anomaly – was associated with relatively greater cognitive decline (β = -.19, p = .02). Within the SFS asymmetry decreased across human childhood (β = -.16, p = .01), and more asymmetrical children exhibited slower choice reaction times (β = .0.17, p = .002). In the ORCADES sample, the more asymmetrical participants (as indexed by bone asymmetry) were less intelligent (β = -.24, p = .01). In the Berlin Sample and the LBC 1921 no consistent associations were found between personality traits and asymmetry. Collectively, these findings suggest symmetry functions as a measure of overall well-being as the trend is for higher asymmetry to be associated with a relatively poorer score on a variety of outcome measures. The findings considerably expand the number of existing studies in these empirical areas and in several cases – particularly asymmetry’s association with socioeconomic status in the elderly and reaction times among children – represent the first work on those areas. The present work confirms the finding that asymmetry is linked to adverse outcomes. However, the underlying mechanisms by which symmetry is linked to such outcomes remain underexplored and require clarification.